Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Four

Lon Chaney, The Universal Monster

In 1918, the Great War ended and Johnny came marching home again, except that some Johnnys didn't march. They limped instead, or hobbled on canes and crutches, or were rolled in wheelchairs because of their war wounds. The term basket case, still in use, dates from a war that began a century ago. It refers to quadruple amputees carried around in baskets.

After the war some men went about their lives. Others were forever scarred. Try as it might, the world could not have avoided seeing men mutilated and burned, scarred and dismembered, their faces shot away or their limbs reduced. Sometimes art anticipates life. Sometimes it reflects it. In the United States at least, perhaps no other artist was poised for the return of the mutilated as was Lon Chaney.

Leonidas Frank Chaney was born on April 1, 1883, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Both parents were deaf. In order to communicate with them, Chaney learned to express himself with face, body, and hands--perfect training for a future silent film actor. He also learned what it means to be an outsider because of physical disability. Chaney went on stage before his teen years were up. An actor, singer, dancer, comedian, choreographer, makeup artist, writer, director, and stage manager, Lon Chaney made his undying name in the movies. He arrived in Hollywood in 1910 and made his first movie short in 1912 or 1913. The first feature film with his name in the credits was Richelieu, from 1914. In all, he made about 160 movies. A well-disguised Chaney may have played more uncredited roles.

Known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces," Lon Chaney played character roles throughout his career. He is most remembered for his portrayals of grotesque, mutilated, and disfigured men. In 1919, that pivotal year in things large and small, Chaney put his skills at pantomime and contortion to good use as a "fake cripple" nicknamed The Frog in a movie short called The Miracle Man. A favorite among crowds and critics, The Miracle Man became a breakout picture for Chaney. He followed that up with a starring role in The Penalty, from 1920. In an extraordinary performance, Chaney played Blizzard, a man whose legs had been amputated in his youth. For the role, the actor had his legs tied up behind him and walked on his knees. His feat (no pun intended) astonished moviegoers.

The Penalty is a thriller, a sort of weird menace story made before the pulp genre of the 1930s carried that name. It is also considered a horror movie, one of the earliest feature-length horror movies made in America. Shorter films had preceded it: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908, 1912, and 1913; Frankenstein in 1910; The Werewolf in 1913. John Barrymore recreated the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a feature-length film from 1920, one of two American versions of the story from that year. Despite all that, the horror movies of the 1910s and '20s that most fans know are The Hunchback of Notre Dame, from 1923, and The Phantom of the Opera, from 1925. The star of both was Lon Chaney and his performances in both are again extraordinary. The scene of the double unmasking in The Phantom of the Opera (once for the camera, once for the damsel in distress Christine) is still shocking and frightening, even to us, nearly ninety years after it was first shown. It's hard to believe that the Phantom's countenance is merely a combination of makeup, lighting, and the actor's craft and not a real, though disfigured, face.

Lon Chaney died in 1930. He was of course irreplaceable, but the show must go on, and so Hollywood continued making horror movies, more in the 1930s than in the 1920s. The monsters of those movies are the supernatural monsters of the past (vampires, zombies, and other walking dead), monsters of science (Frankenstein's monster, beast-men, invisible men, etc.), and real-life monsters (murderers, maniacs, mad scientists, and psychopaths). Bats, cats, old mansions, mad scientists, and psycho killers abounded in bewildering array in the 1920s and '30s. So did vampires and even zombies. Every studio and many independent producers got in on the act. One among them was and is identified with monsters. Those monsters even have a name, or more accurately, a brand. They are called Universal Monsters.

Lon Chaney began his career with Universal Pictures. Although he worked as a freelance actor during the 1920s, both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera were released by Universal. (1) By fate or design, Universal became the studio where monster movies were made: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Werewolf of London (1935), Dracula's Daughter (1936), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) in the 1930s, many more in the 1940s. The Wolf Man (1941) was the last great Universal horror movie made before war once again descended. (It was released on December 12, 1941, less than a week after Pearl Harbor). Universal returned to greatness in the 1950s with a number of science-based monster movies. In the meantime, Hollywood, Universal included, churned out endless variations on the monsters of the 1930s and before.

I read once that a decadent culture is characterized by remakes, rehashes, attributions, and allusions of and to things of the past. You could add sequels and parodies to that list. If that's the case, then monster and horror movies--genres that are already about the past and about decadence--began showing signs of decadence in the 1940s and '50s. The trend was already apparent in the late thirties with sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein. In 1943, Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Five years later, after war had intervened, those two monsters were reduced to comedy in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I like Abbott and Costello, but the expression "How far we fall" comes to mind. It's clear that monster movies of the pre-war type were running out of steam.

To be continued . . .

(1) Chaney's third great horror movie of the 1920s, London After Midnight (1927), was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That film is now lost.
Also note: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" is a Civil War song, not a song from World War I.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Three

Decline, Decadence, and Weimar Germany

One hundred years ago this month, Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the good duchess, thus plunging Europe into a war from which it has never recovered. The war was probably inevitable. The nations of Europe had been preparing for it for years. Some were in fact spoiling for war. I say nations, but most were actually more than nations. They were empires, and at least seven--the British, French, Italian, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman--became belligerents. You might as well throw in the Belgians as well. Two emperors claimed the title Caesar. They were the tsar of Russia and the German kaiser. Both were deposed as a result of the war. Four empires were destroyed and one--the Russian--was reduced, only to expand again a generation later. It may have been that every one of those empires was attempting to become the great Roman Empire of classical history. That ambition would also have made war inevitable, for a continent the size of Europe can hardly contain seven or more empires. The point of all this is you can look at the last 1,500 years of European history as simply the aftermath of the fall of the Roman empire in which the last century or so has been marked by increasing decadence. We may today be in a final decadent age. If weird fiction is about the past and about decadence, then it's no wonder that it would be the first genre of fantasy to have its own magazine, nor that supernatural monsters--that is, monsters from the past--would stalk through most of the twentieth century.

Weimar Germany (1919-1933) is held up (or down) as the epitome of a decadent civilization. The origins of German decadence probably lie deep in the past, but even before the end of the war, a German historian and philosopher, Oswald Spengler, set the tone for the Weimar Republic in his book Decline of the West. Published in the summer of 1918, Decline of the West proved popular in its author's home country. Spengler revised it in 1922 and authored a second volume published in 1923. I'm not a philosopher and won't go into Spengler's ideas very deeply. I have never read him, only about him. I simply offer his work as evidence that a spirit of decadence hung over Europe, especially Germany, after World War I.

Oswald Spengler was influenced by Nietzsche. Apparently like Nietzsche, he saw his own time as a kind of end time. He also apparently foresaw the rise of an Übermensch--he called the process Caesarism--in the twilight time of decline. Like Nietzsche, Spengler accurately predicted much of what we see among us today. In any case, a process of decay evidently wasn't enough for the German people, for less than a generation after one war ended, they chose a second war of self-destruction, a Götterdämmerung from out of their own folkloric past. It's worth noting that the German title of Spengler's book--Der Untergang des Abendlandes--refers to the West as the direction in which the sun goes down, in other words, the land of the evening or of twilight. Götterdämmerung is of course a German expression for the twilight of the gods.

The world's first fantasy magazine was also a product of post-war Germany. Called Der Orchideengarten: Phantastische Blätter (The Orchids-Garden: Fantastic Pages), it went into print in January 1919, the same month in which the Weimar Republic was founded and only two months after the armistice. Der Orchideengarten ran for fifty-one issues, from January 1919 to November 1921. Its editors were Karl Hans Strobl (1877-1946) and Alfons von Czibulka (1888-1969). Despite the supposed decadence of the time, fantasy and weird fiction were not highly esteemed in Germany (if I understand my correspondent Lars Dangel correctly). In addition, Strobl and Czibulka were later associated with the Nazis. They and their work very likely fell out of favor after World War II. That left things to Weird Tales, the first American magazine of fantasy and weird fiction and the preeminent magazine of its kind in the world. First in print in March 1923, Weird Tales lasted until September 1954 in its first incarnation. Like the undead, it has returned again and again and is still being published today. I think it safe to say that both magazines came about in one way or another because of World War I, the spirit of decadence in the postwar period, and a kind of looking backward that characterized the early twentieth century.

Weimar Germany is also known for its cinema, which, according to Wikipedia, "focused heavily on crime and horror," in other words, the subjects of fantasy and weird fiction. Among the movies of that period:
  • Algol, Tragödie der Macht (Algol: Tragedy of Power, 1920)
  • The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
  • Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into the World, 1920)
  • Der Januskopf (1920)
  • Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, 1922)
  • Metropolis (1927)
  • M (1931)
All feature monsters of one kind or another: the space alien and at least the concept of totalitarianism in Algol; the man-made monster in Dr. Caligari and Der Golem; the degenerate human or psychopath in Der Januskopf (a retelling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story); the vampire in Nosferatu; the machine-monster and another treatment of totalitarianism in Metropolis; and the psychopathic killer in M. (1, 2) American moviemakers were paying attention to developments in German cinema of the 1920s. They--as well as a passel of European immigrants to the United States--would dominate the next decade of horror movies.

The interwar period was of course characterized by the rise of totalitarians. Lenin came to power in 1917 and was succeeded by Stalin in the 1920s. In China, a young Mao was watching and began his conversion to Marxist-Leninism in 1919. The Nazi party came into existence in 1920 (in part on a foundation laid by occultists with beliefs drawn from Ignatius Donnelly and Madame Blavatsky). Thirteen years later, its leader, Adolf Hitler, put the Weimar Republic in its grave. In the meantime, Benito Mussolini rose to the premiership in Italy in 1922. The word totalitarian itself is either Italian or German in origin and seems to have come out of the 1920s.

The 1920s were a decade for the other real-life monster as well. The movie M, starring Peter Lorre as a serial killer, would have been a familiar story to the people of Weimar Germany, for their country had been plagued by psychopaths during the decade previous to its release. Karl Denke, a cannibal and a butcher of humans, died by suicide in 1924. Carl Großmann, "The Berlin Butcher," was also a cannibal and a suicide. Friedrich Haarmann,  known as "The Butcher of Hanover" and "The Vampire of Hanover," was guillotined in 1925. Peter Kürten, called "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" and "The Düsseldorf Monster," is supposed to have been the inspiration for Peter Lorre's character. He killed at least ten people before he, too, lost his head.

Oswald Spengler attached the idea of what he called Caesarism to a declining civilization, but is the serial killer also diagnostic of decadence? Both the totalitarian and the psychopathic killer are as old as time, but as we think of them today, they arose at the end of the nineteenth century, a period supposed to have been decadent. They also populated post-World War I Europe, again a time of decadence. So if our own time is decadent, then should we not have rampant totalitarian monsters and psychopathic killers? Maybe we do. But maybe they go by a different disguise.

To be continued . . .

(1) Algol, which sounds like a fascinating movie, is about the discovery underground of a space alien that has access to a source of unlimited power. That sounds an awful lot like Bulwer-Lytton's Vril-Ya, about which I wrote recently.
(2) The robot in Metropolis is considered the first of its kind in film. The word robot had entered the lexicon of fantasy earlier that decade through the play R.U.R. (Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti or Rossum's Universal Robots, 1920) by Czech writer Karel Čapek.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, June 8, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Two

A Taxonomy of Monsters

Before science and reason, monsters were supernatural in origin, or they came from mythology and folklore. The nineteenth century gave us two new categories of monsters, the scientific monster and the real-life monster. If you want to play scientist, here is the beginning of a taxonomic scheme:

  1. The Supernatural Monster--Devil, demon, ghost, vampire, werewolf, ghoul, incubus, succubus, etc.
  2. The Mythological and Folkloric Monster--Giant, cyclops, dragon, kraken, ogre, troll, etc.
  3. The Scientific Monster--Man-made monster (e.g., Frankenstein's monster), mutant, space alien, invisible monster, interdimensional monster, android, robot, cryptozoological monster or cryptid, degenerate human, etc.
  4. The Real-Life Monster, explained and/or justified by science or pseudoscience--Psychopathic killer, totalitarian.

It's worth noting that many of the nineteenth century monsters date from about 1885 to the end of the century, mostly from the 1890s. That period coincides with the origins of our current popular culture, including movies, radio, pulp magazines (hence paperback books), newspaper comics (hence comic books), and UFOs (in the early form of airships). Science fiction predates the 1890s, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that H.G. Wells, in his novels of the 1890s and early 1900s, fathered twentieth century science fiction. (1, 2) If that's the case, then a good deal of our genre fiction also comes from the 1890s. All of that may or may not be significant. More to the point, the stereotype of the fin de siècle is that it was a period of ennui, pessimism, and thoughts of degeneration and decadence, exemplars of which included Oscar Wilde and French poets such as Paul Verlaine. But the 1890s were also a period of hope, confidence, and optimism, especially in the United States. (3, 4)

So in the 1890s, there were those who looked behind them and saw their own times as decadent, while others looked forward to new worlds made possible by science and the idea of progress. (5) Those two poles--past and future--each has its own literature of the fantastic, and each type of fantasy has its own monsters. The fantasy of the past includes high fantasy, horror, and weird fiction. Its monsters are supernatural, mythological, and folkloric. (6) The fantasy of the future is science fiction. The monsters of science fiction are of course scientific. If you include dystopian fiction with science fiction, then the totalitarian may also be a monster of that genre. And if past and future are the poles, then maybe science fantasy or low fantasy is located at the equator (or perhaps no closer to one pole than 49° 51′ South, 128° 34′ West, the location of R'lyeh). Fantasy and science fiction also meet in stories like House of Dark Shadows (1970), in which vampirism is explained as a kind of blood-borne illness. In any case, a survey of monsters of the twentieth century swings between those two poles, past and future, fantasy and science fiction. There is reason to believe that we have swung pretty widely to one side. We'll have to take that into account if we're going to figure out a monster for the twenty-first century. (7) 

The two real-life monsters about which I have written so much also came out of the nineteenth century, but they seem to have been real before they were imaginary (unless the Übermensch can be considered a prototypical totalitarian). I still haven't found a fictional totalitarian from before the rise of real-life totalitarians beginning in 1917. George Orwell's 1984 (1948) is probably the most well known depiction of the totalitarian in fiction, but it came well after we had encountered real-life monsters of that type. Likewise, I haven't found the first fictional portrayal of the psychopathic killer, certainly not one that predates Jack the Ripper, who carved up five women in 1888. I'm almost certain the pyschopath would have shown up in thrillers or detective stories of the 1800s. The character Svengali, from George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby, might be a psychopath, but I'm not sure he's a killer, as I have not read that book. Regardless, I'm open to suggestions. In the meantime, it's on to the twentieth century.

To be continued . . .

(1) Those novels include: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904), In the Days of the Comet (1906), and The War in the Air (1908). Wells also wrote fantasy and Utopian novels.
(2) I have been looking for the first fictional totalitarian, for it seems to me that authors of fiction would have anticipated the career of the first real-life totalitarian. Rodrigo Borges de Faveri has proposed Nietzsche's Übermensch from Also Sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885, translated 1896) as the first or prototypical totalitarian, but that work is visionary or philosophical rather than fictional. I have read only a synopsis of When the Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells, but Ostrog--whose very name is like that of a monster--may be a totalitarian. Can anyone comment?
(3) In Europe, there seems to have been more of an air of impending revolutionary change, hence the popularity of Utopian literature and revolutionary movements. Unfortunately, Utopianism and revolution too often result in oppression, murder, and totalitarianism, as the history of the twentieth century shows. In any case, I have a book called Looking Forward (1970), which reprints images from popular magazines of the turn of the century. The emphasis is on what life in the twentieth century would be like. Looking forward can hardly be called a decadent activity. The title echoes that of Edward Bellamy's classic Utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000–1887, published in 1888.
(4) In Also Sprach Zarathustra, Nietzsche described the Übermensch and perhaps more importantly predicted the arrival of the Last Man. I'll have more to say about that guy later.
(5) The World's Columbian Exposition--the Chicago World's Fair of 1893--commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the discovery of the original New World. Despite the fact that Frederick Jackson Turner lectured on the closing of the American frontier--a decidedly backward-looking thesis--the spirit of the Chicago World's Fair was forward-looking and progressive. Another spirit haunted the fair that year, for H.H. Holmes, America's first serial killer, was then on the loose in Chicago.
(6) Located at one extreme of fantasy fiction, weird fiction, it seems to me, is about decadence, be it personal, biological, cultural, or civilizational. Weird fiction as the fantastic, or at the very least outré, fiction of decadence is one possible definition of that term.
(7) I recently wrote about the question, Is science fiction dying? That question has some bearing on the monster of the twenty-first century as well. Hang in there.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley